Friday, Oct. 16, 2009

Dracula With The Alchemist

A Patchwork Darkness In Bay View

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Alchemist Theatre’s production of Dracula: The Undead is hugely entertaining. The thing is--it's every bit as inconsistent in quality as it is entertaining. Every aspect of the production from acting to pacing to overall design and everything in between is so breathtakingly inconsistent in quality as to make the production feel disjointed, disorienting and completely incohesive. Bits of it seem sutured together from various different productions of various different Dracula plays of various different themes, tones and levels of quality. That this actually ends up working to the production’s advantage may come across as a backhanded compliment, but the unique voice of this particular production of Dracula: The Undead comes from the fasciating patchwork quality of its presentation.

The play is presented not as an event in and of itself, but as a staged ritual that is being presented to placate the desires of the dark god Dracula. Each scene is set to be a different part of that ritual. The space between audience and actor, house and stage is quite permeable. Various incongruous elements of production alternate between being deadly serious and utterly comic, intentionally funny and (possibly) unintentionally funny, disturbing and campy, very repulsive and very sexy. The inconsistency, intended or not, plays interesting games with an audience’s expectations in a way that ends up being really effective at taking an audience out of its comfort zone. It’s a pretty rare occasion  when you find yourself in a theatre without knowing exactly what to expect at any given moment—and that alone is worth he price of admission here.


It’s not exactly faithful to Bram Stoker’s original novel, but many of the themes that have made the character so enduring over the years are manifest here in somewhat unexpected places. Nowhere is this more evident than the various manifestations of the Dracula character himself. The darkly charismatic countenance of malevolent nobility isn’t at all present in Kirk Thomsen’s performance in the title role. The guy’s got plenty of charisma and could have easily pulled off a noble darkness if he wanted to. Instead we get a portrayal of the title villain as a hairless, pale, sinewy shadow of death. He is more Count Orlok (from Nosferatu) than Count Dracula. He seems sickened by the evil that gives him his power. He’s frail, thin and perfectly sculpted—but not charismatic in a traditional sense. That characteristic charismatic face of evil is present in the shadows of the production, however. And, oddly enough, a lot of the darkly charismatic quality of evil comes in Jeremy Einecher’s performance as Dracula’s psychotic disciple Renfield.



Einecher has a really powerful frame, which lends a lot to the idea of him being given power by the night. Burdened by madness, Renfield is given much more melodramatic dialogue than any other character in the script. And more than any other actor in the ensemble, Einecher manages to make the more melodramatic bits of dialogue seem not only serious, but frighteningly natural and organic. In this respect, Einecher’s voice renders the powerful, darkly charismatic face of the title character we don’t see in Thomsen’s deliberately sickened portrayal of Dracula's physical form. 

Playing the role of heroes against the darkness, we have a host of characters. With the story’s heroism, the strange patchwork of the play makes itself most pronounced in the Dr. Seward/ Von Helsing pairing. In the hands of Douglas Smedbron, the valiant vampire hunter comes across as kind of a crazy old man who knows more than his demeanor and comportment would suggest. Andy North’s brilliantly pragmatic portrayal of the young Dr. Seward comes across as the more stable of the two heroes. He is merely assisting Von Helsing, but he is a completely well-adjusted man of science with just a shade of the more unstable elements of science. We see brief flashes of Dr. Frankenstein and . . . Nicola Tesla in his performance.



The victims of the evil are really well represented here as well. The tragedy of thse who are victimized by Dracula makes a powerful presence onstage in the form of those women who have been enslaved as vampire brides. Melissa Freson is particularly impressive here as a very petite, young woman with an exotic charm, speaking French and playing violin. With her we get a powerful sense that there's some sort of life that has been completely taken over by the evil. The process of the victimization becomes strikingly apparent in Liz Whitford’s portrayal of the beautiful, young Lucy. Her character gradually travels from idle interest in romance to more powerful and unsettling desires that slowly creep into her personality. At some point, she’s writhing around onstage in the midst of a spectral image of Dracula. When next we see her, she’s stained with blood. It’s a very striking transformation and Whitford carries it off brilliantly. 


Periodically the production checks-in with the gypsies who are delivering the story. Here the production straddles both comedy and drama. Beth Lewinski is a great deal of fun playing gypsy comedy--wordplay, a comic sense of reverence towards the title character. She’s fun. And there’s a darker end to the comedy as well—briefly sinister intonations in her voice. Jenna Wetzel plays the more serious end of the gypsy element as a very modern-looking gypsy clad in black leather.

There’s quite a bit of visual appeal to the production. Director Aaron Kopec delivers the play as a series of static visuals. There are countless iconic visual moments here, aided by an exhaustively shifting lighting scheme and some really compelling and compellingly simple visual effects. In a space that size, projected photographic images of a spectral Kirk Thomsen as Dracula look positively haunting. It’s the simplest lighting effect in the book—as old as photography, but it doesn’t fail here. The Aaron Kopec soundtrack adds a huge amount to the production as well, particularly when the base pumps through the tiny space like a massive pulse. The music itself is a strange combination of Elfman-esque symphonic sounds, the hard-edge industrial of Nine Inch Nails or Frontline Assembly and . . . something that reminded me a bit of Tangerine Dream in there somewhere. . .

I recall the various elements of production coming together in a particularly potent way with respect to the Dracula origin we see the gypsies relate after intermission. Everybody’s wearing masks in an abstract, narrated history behind the evil. We see the well-meaning nobleman who is to become Dracula in what bears a striking resemblance to a converted Guy Fawkes mask. Intended or not, the Guy Fawkes reference adds something to the idea that great evil comes from the most noble of intentions. That element was a really interesting bit that could’ve been brilliantly played-up in a more cohesive production, but the wild, untested energies of this Dracula production end up being a great deal of fun anyway.

Alchemist Theatre’s Dracula: The Undead  runs through November 7th.

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